Bernard Thomas: “Mark Lamson? He’s culturally incorrect. You see, you can argue we all go back to one race. But somewhere down the line there developed racial separation."
From outside it sounded like a Santeria initiation. I heard the call of the bata drums, then the lead voice, followed by the chorus to Eleggua, the trickster orisha and the spirit of the crossroads:
"People don’t get tired of it. They’ll dance for an hour straight to drums.”
- Moyuba o moyuba onsba Ache moyuba oris ha
Sung in Lucumi, the Yoruban language spoken in Cuba, the song came floating out onto Ray Street in North Park from what looked like an old storefront. Inside, I saw three seated bataleros, all of them white, with their two-sided, hourglass-shaped drums strapped horizontally on their laps.
Omar Moore: “There are impostors representing African culture in this town.”
When the lead drummer played a call on the iya, the largest bata, the second drummer answered on the itotele, as a third . drummer held down a repeating rhythm on the okonkolo, the smallest bata.
The interlocking rhythms, played with six hands, formed a choppy, syncopated conversation, in open and closed tones, that sounded like human speech.
On drums: Mark Lamson, Gene Perry. Mark Lamson is widely regarded as one of the best drummers in San Diego.
And it was, albeit in the African Yoruban dialect. When the iya sounded “Ogun,” the itotele answered with “la topa”; and when the iya spoke “abu, ” the itotele came back with “kenke. ”
Meanwhile, various bells strung around the mouth of the iya set off waves of jingling. Two dozen dancers moved across a floor covered with soft mats. A shirtless black youth with skin the color of cafe latte danced near a 20-ish sylph with long blond hair and a nose ring. A lean, boyish woman with sullen lips and a zebra tattoo across her shoulder danced alongside a tall, full-figured black woman with dreadlocks and a traditional African dress. Sweating in the early-afternoon heat, they gracefully arched and dipped, approximating the movements of Eleggua, a god known to use a hooked branch to push underbrush out of the way.
But this wasn’t some toque or possession ritual. No babalaos, the high priests of the Santeria religion, were present. There were no burning candles, no sacrificial animals, and no believers ready to surrender their spirits so that the orishas, the powerful gods and goddesses in the Yoruban religion, could inhabit them. This was an Afro-Cuban drumming and dance class at the Baraka Center for Drum and Dance. And on the grand opening weekend, people were getting a taste of Afro-Caribbean magic as embodied in bata drums.
Less than five minutes away, other San Diegans were pounding on drums. Paulo Mattioli, a djembe teacher and drum builder who grew up in Encinitas but now lives in Los Angeles, was conducting a class in West African percussion. As Mattioli, an Italian-American, played the djembe, a powerful drum that originated in Guinea, his students learned the various hand movements and tones of the instrument. Still farther away, at San Dieguito Park, a gathering of drummers, some of them from men’s groups throughout the area, formed a large drum circle and started playing their djembes and other drums. A few were skilled, but most were novices.
A few hours later, I went to Croce’s and heard Gene Perry, a black conga player, lead his Latin band, Afro Rumba, through a set of tropical funk laced with plena and bomba, traditional African rhythms that took root during colonial days in Puerto Rico, where Perry grew up. Afterwards, I stopped off at the U.S. Grant Hotel and caught a late-night set by Equinox, a mediocre Latin jazz band powered by Tommy Aros, a great Mexican-American percussionist who played wickedly funky mambos and rumbas.
San Diego, better known for banda music, grunge, and Jacuzzi jazz, didn’t necessarily spring to mind when I thought of great drumming. The San Francisco Bay Area, with a much larger and more diverse multicultural community, is the Western epicenter for African drumming and dance. And Los Angeles is home to such great percussionists as Francisco Aguabella, the Cuban drummer who brought the first consecrated set of bata drums to America in the ’50s. But with small communities of Puerto Ricans and Brazilians, a sizable African-American population, and large numbers of Mexican-Americans and Anglos living and working side by side, San Diego is no longer deaf to exotic polyrhythms and subtle configurations of clave, the pulse of African-style drumming.
Master drummers ignited a small but passionate community dedicated to learning the music; Michael Spiro taught Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian percussion at San Diego State University in the early ’80s, and Miguel Do Kepinique and Jorge Alabe taught Afro-Brazilian percussion workshops later on. Likewise, Ibrahima Camara, the leader of Koumpo Senegalese West African Dance Company, and Diamno Coura, also from Senegal, who were here in the late 70s, turned the city on to the beauties of West African drumming.
Now in San Diego you can take lessons in Brazilian, Cuban, West African, and Indian drumming. You can also buy most any kind of drum you want—everything from giant djun djuns and djembes to bamboo slit drums and cajones, the boxes that are played on the streets of Havana. Even better, some local drummers are willing to share knowledge gleaned from trips to South America and the Caribbean, where they learn rhythms that won’t become popular here for many years. That makes the scene inviting for those who want to explore the deep waters of drumming. But not everyone is into sharing the rhythms, much less the radical roots from which the music springs.
And that’s the catch. Much of the growing interest in hand percussion features African or African-influenced drumming. But the African drum is a supremely charged icon. For American blacks, whose ancestors were brought to the New World in chains over three terrible centuries, the drum embodies the mystery and unconquerable spirit of Mother Africa. This was well known to European slavers, who took the instruments away, lest the slaves use its secret language for insurrections. Most whites who pick up an African drum are usually aware of its origin, dimly conscious of its power, but oblivious to its history and much else. The result: Some of San Diego’s leading black percussionists have nothing but scorn for what they see as the latest Anglo ripoff of African culture.
“There are impostors representing African culture in this town,” said Omar Moore, one of the leading black drummers in San Diego. His eyes blazed and there was suppressed rage in his voice. “Booking agencies here get groups of drummers and dancers that have nothing to do with our culture. They don’t even look African, much less speak the language. And these agencies get people who aren’t even professional drummers and dancers; they’re only students. So it’s a cut to the music community, a cut to the African community, and a cut to our culture.”
Was the burgeoning drum culture merely the latest incarnation of whites exploiting blacks and other indigenous cultures? Could a white person play bata in a Santeria initiation or the djembe in a sacred West African ritual? Could the drum, an instrument traditionally used in healing and transcendence, ever bring men and women of different races and cultures together? Or was it just one more thing that separated us at the crossroads — one more unbridgeable chasm?
My own path to drumming was circuitous. A guitarist and songwriter, I grew up playing and listening to blues, rock, jazz, folk and country music.
Then, as a student in Berkeley, my horizons widened. I heard Andean flute music, Indonesian gamelan, Indian ragas and, every weekend, conga players locked in funky 6/8 grooves. I dug the music but never thought twice about buying myself a quinto, conga, and tumbadora. The guitar was the ruling instrument of American popular music, and I figured that in a lifetime, I wouldn’t begin to penetrate its harmonic mysteries.
Yet four years ago I was drawn inexorably to the drum.
In New Orleans I was invited to participate in a second line parade in an all-black neighborhood.
Suddenly I found myself amid an army of revelers who came flooding out of rundown shotgun shacks along a twisting parade route.
Ten feet in front of me, trumpets growled, trombones groaned, saxophones wailed, and a tuba burped between the popcornpopping rhythms of the snare and bass drum.
Behind and around me, hundreds of people attacked wine bottles with sticks, hit cowbells and tin cans, or clapped on the offbeats, forming their own chattering percussion orchestra and singing low-down blues. And in the sticky, subtropical heat, the music lifted people out of themselves. I saw a middle-aged woman dancing alone, shuddering in ecstasy, and a man climb 20 feet up a telephone pole and shake, as if with palsy, to the rocking rhythms and the hoarse-voiced chorus below.
After that I couldn’t get enough drumming. I heard African kalengos, Brazilian surdos, and Aztec huehuetls. I heard the Tuvan throat singers from the steppes of Mongolia groan over rhythms made by the ankle bones of a sheep enclosed in a bull testicle, music that sounded like the oldest sound in the universe.
I’d always loved Celtic music. But now I found myself listening with renewed interest to the bodhran, a magical drum that played dancing, syncopated rhythms that reminded me of African patterns. And then I saw Los Murtequitos de Matanzas play Cuban rumbas on the salidor, tres dos, quinto, and guagua, a horizontal instrument made of cane and hit with sticks. Hearing the Muhequitos play the intricate rumbas, from Africa by way of the slave trade, connected me to some deep mystery I couldn’t quite fathom. I felt relieved of the weight of my own life and told myself I would learn those rhythms if it took a lifetime.
The first drum I bought, on a friend’s recommendation, was a djembe, a loud and powerful drum that I’d heard in various African settings. Then I found a teacher who drilled me in clave, the fundamental pulse of African music played in various ostinatos on wooden sticks, shekeres (beaded gourds), and bells. Soon I was practicing left-handed rocks, slaps, and flams and learning to play Cuban-style tumbao and rumba on a second-hand set of congas.
As I tuned into the clave and learned to hold more complex rhythms with other drummers, I got in touch with a musical universe vastly different from the one we’re accustomed to in the West. American music, derived from Europe, moves out to even rhythms and meters. But the basic drumbeat of African clave — pat-pat that allows for asymmetrical counter-rhythms and accents of dazzling complexity. Put another way, the person playing clave must always adjust the rhythm to the flux of the other drummers.
The implications went deeper. The rigid, lock-step time of most Western popular music mirrors the strict, rational-scientific mindset of a culture seeking to impose order on the world, a masculinized rhythm coming from a fetish for machine-like precision. But traditional African drumming is organic. To play rumba or samba or plena, you have to let go of the rigidity in your own mind and body. You have to rearrange the mental furniture, as it were, and feel the passing of time differently.
Trouble was, I saw people playing sacred drums without bothering to learn about the instrument. It was as if they thought that by just thwacking on barrels covered tightly with animal skin they could suddenly enter some higher consciousness. The members of the men’s movement, in particular, were wont to engage in percussive pandemonium, trying to tap into some phantom mythological realm via an instrument that could, played correctly, conjure powerful spirits. Played incorrectly, though, drums could create tension and anger and become one more fragmenting force.
Anyone can make a loud noise on a drum. But to make the instrument speak, you have to dedicate yourself to learning its language. If you want it badly enough, doors will open and you can find a teacher — I knew that. But you had to be careful. Not every teacher knew what he was doing. Countless players, black, Mark Lamson, Gene Perry brown, and white, advertised themselves as “master drummers,” as if those two words were some guarantee of greatness. Most were decent players who possessed a little knowledge, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The drum itself contained all kinds of knowledge. But the secrets, inextricably entwined with spiritual laws and primordial powers, weren’t for everyone.
"A lot of people see drumming as out-of-control flailing, with no concern for technique or mastery. But the drum deserves the same respect as any other instrument,” says Mark Lamson, who plays bata, congas, and Afro-Brazilian percussion and is widely regarded as one of the best drummers in San Diego. “And master drummers are as accomplished as any other masters. In this culture, drumming isn’t respected. But in every other culture, master drummers are revered as the highest artists. If you have to declare yourself a master drummer, you’re not. There have been some people in San Diego that have declared themselves master African drummers. But it turns out they were never drummers in Africa; they picked up drumming here.”
Lamson is lean and wiry, with straight brown hair and an angular face that has something almost Oriental about it. His gray-blue eyes squint when he smiles, and he speaks in a deep voice, each word carefully considered. Everything about Lamson is precise, controlled, like he’s saving all his energy for drumming.
Before I saw him leading the bata trio at Baraka, I caught Lamson playing at Croce’s with Koro Libre, an Afro-Cuban band that specializes in complex arrangements of modem Cuban music by the likes of Irakere. Lamson coaxed ticking, dancing figures on his rims and covered the role of the timbales, playing bell parts, fills, and kicking in clave with cross-stick on the snare drum as Tommy Aros held down a furious tempo on conga and assorted hand percussion. Lamson knew just when to lie back and when to heat the beat. His bass drum accents were loose and funky. And he did what all the best drummers have to do: he swung the band.
“When I’m playing drums. I’m trying to stay in the moment, in the music, away from distractions. In Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music, it’s about energy-building. That’s why it’s natural for the tempo to build over time.”
Lamson was born in Boston, raised in a Jewish family, and moved to San Diego when he was nine years old. He might’ve ended up an anthropologist or a philosopher if his mother hadn’t taken him to a film one day.
“The first thing that got me into drumming was a movie called Black Orpheus. My mother dragged me to that when I was nine,” Lamson said one night after we’d taken a tour of some of the clubs where the city’s best drummers were gigging. “And when I saw that music being played up and down the hills during carnival, shortly after, I asked for drum lessons. Gradually the lessons led me to Cuban and Brazilian music.”
He played his trap set in various rock, pop, and thrash bands. But in the mid-’80s he took some classes at San Diego State University from Michael Spiro, a renowned drummer from the Bay Area. From that day on, the course of his life forever changed.
“Michael did an opening lecture with recordings of different styles of Afro-Cuban music. Then he played this very extraordinary tape of bata drumming that had the Matanzas-style version of a song to the orisha Yemaya. It started as a very slow rhythm representing the ocean and motherhood and built to an incredible tempo. To hear the sound of these drums and know that it was just three drummers producing this huge repertoire — that gave me goose bumps. It blew me away.”
Initially, Spiro discouraged Lamson, warning him how difficult the batd were to master. Santeria bata drumming, with its hundreds of complex rhythms and (in Cuba) thousands of songs sung in Lucumi, was not something most Westerners could excel at. Maybe more daunting, to master the bata required being initiated into Aria, a sacred drumming discipline that took many years of preparation and meant going deeply into the complex Yoruban-based religion.
“I told Michael from the beginning, this is what I wanted to do,” Lamson said. “But for a long time — a year and a half — he wouldn’t teach me. So I worked off tapes and learned songs. Eventually Michael saw that I was serious.”
Desire and talent weren’t enough. A drummer who “owns” Ana— who knows the spirit inside the bata and has a consecrated set of drums — has to want to take you on as a devotee. And that decision involves consulting higher forces. Eventually Spiro brought Lamson to Cha Cha (Esteban Vega Bacallao) — his teacher who does own Ana and lives in Matanzas, Cuba.
“Cha Cha went to his orisha and asked, ‘Do you accept him? Is he okay?’ And I was accepted,” says Lamson. “I have Cha Cha and Michael Spiro to thank for where I am.”
Learning the bata was tremendously difficult. Lamson had to play six different heads and master the subtleties of tone on each. Frequently, he had to learn from people who spoke very little English.
“I had to learn all the rhythms on okonkolo, then all the rhythms on the itotele. And then I had to learn to lead with the iya. My hands always hurt. I was playing five hours a day.”
We think of drums as hollowed-out pieces of wood covered with animal skin or plastic. But consecrated bata drums have the power to call down the orishas, the gods of the Yoruban religion and its New World offshoot, Santeria. And they’re not meant to be played by anyone who isn’t initiated.
“You can only learn the bata by being initiated into Aha. Cha Cha, who is considered the greatest bata master, is my padrino of Ana — my godfather of Ana. Right now I’m Omo de Ana, son of Ana. And I’m allowed to play the sacred drums as a student, but I don’t yet own a consecrated set.”
The bata look different from any other drums I’ve seen. They’re shaped like truncated cones, and each head, of a different size, produces two tones. Goatskin, pulled tight against the body of the drum with strips of leather, covers each head. The tighter the leather is pulled, the higher and more popping the tone. The wood used was traditionally mahogany, and all drums in a set were made from the same tree. But in Cuba, a poor country, bata builders have had to be flexible.
According to mythology, bata drums emerged in the 14th-century kingdom of Oyo-Ile, soaked with the aura of Shango, the Yoruban god of thunder, who made the first set. Shango took his rhythms and phrasing from the heavenly storms. But Anyan, the drum orisha, rules over the playing of the bata.
In Cuba a consecrated bata set is built only when it’s determined, through divination that an initiate is allowed to receive one from a ritual elder. Three pieces of wood are chosen with the help of an oracle. Osain, the orisha who rules over plants, is sought out in a ritual that asks for his blessing. The wood is soaked in omiero, an herbal infusion that includes everything from rain and river water to honey and powdered eggshell. The omiero is said to suffuse the drums with divine power. As with most Santeria ceremonies, the spirit — in this case Ana — is honored with an animal sacrifice, then contacted, through an oracle, to see that all went well.
A second ceremony requires the presence of three babalaos, a consecrated drummer, and the prospective player, who watch more omiero poured on the unfinished drums as blessings from the orishas are sought. Should anything go wrong, the operation will be halted until things are corrected. The ceremonies are shrouded in secrecy. But before the skins are put on the bald, a specially prepared kola nut is attached to the first strap of each drum. Sacred inscriptions are written inside the smaller head of the iya, the largest bata. And an afubo, a leather pouch containing an amulet, is nailed to the inside of that drum. When the iya is finished, the other drums are prepared.
“The amazing thing about this religion — even the building of the drums,” says Lamson, “is that there are all these checks and balances to prevent mistakes.”
The final stage is to infuse the new bata set with ashe — a Yoruban word that roughly translates to “spiritual force.” This is done when elder bataleros play their own bata and then give them to the initiate in return for his drums. When the drums are swapped again, the ashe is flowing.
“The whole process,” says Lamson, “is the older set giving birth to the newer set. A new set of Ana has to be born from an older set. They can trace the history of every set in Cuba back to the original consecrated sets made by two babalaos in the 1830s, who were brought over as slaves from Nigeria.”
“Santeros consider properly consecrated bata drums to be living, powerful entities, the materialization of the great spirit Ana, ” writes Raul Canizares in Walking with the Night: The Afro-Cuban World of Santeria. They’re played by drummers called Omo-Ana, who, along with singers, call on the orishas with specific rhythmic phrases. After hours of intense drumming and singing, if everything is done properly, the orishas may come down into the heads of initiates. If that happens, the initiate goes into a deep trance and experiences the divine.
Bata drumming is at the heart of toques — also called tambors — celebrations that fuse sacred singing and drumming with the intimacy of a party. In a typical year, Lamson drums at 20 to 30 toques. Most are in L.A., typically on Saturdays and Sundays. But they take place all over the country, from Miami and New York to Houston and San Diego, wherever Santeria has a strong base.
“I’ve been to toques where things get really rocking — where four and even five orishas come down in an evening,” says Lamson. “But it takes a lot to put someone in trance. It can take hours of fierce drumming and dancing. For me, it’s a really beautiful way to get together as a congregation. It’s like temple or church, but it’s drumming, singing, and dancing. As a drummer, it makes a lot of sense for this to be my church, playing sacred music on drums.” So how did a Jewish kid from Boston end up drumming for Yoruban spirit-possession ceremonies in Southern California?
“I was raised Jewish and bar mitzvahed. But I was also taught to be real open to other cultures and respect them,” Lamson told me one night over dinner at a local vegetarian restaurant. “And it’s interesting that in Yoruban tradition and philosophy, every culture’s manifestation of the spiritual realm is seen as the same thing. The orishas come out in one way or another. With the Christians, it was the saints; the Yorubans who came to Cuba as slaves had no problem associating their religion with the saints. They were very open to other cultures; they accepted mixing it all. And that’s the way I see Judaism in association with the Yoruban religion.
“One thing about the religion that really attracted me is that this is a working system where you can go and practice with a congregation and have singing and dancing and drumming every Sunday. Whereas with a pure African spiritual tradition, to recreate that here is almost impossible. Being taken out of their homeland into slavery made the Africans hell-bent on preserving their culture and music. In Africa, there were new drum systems brought in over the centuries; there was a Muslim influence. African drumming grew in the size of the ensemble; some events would involve 20 to 30 drummers. In African bata drumming, everything is so fast. But in Cuba, they would stick to the family of three bata, and the rhythms are slower. They’re retelling the Yoruban poetry at the same tempo that it would be spoken."
Since he started playing bata, Lamson’s been to Cuba twice, for trips of two weeks and five weeks, studying with Cha Cha and another bata master, Regino Jimenez, and learning firsthand from the legendary Los Murtequitos de Matanzas, with whom he traveled through Mexico for four months. Lamson’s also passionate about Afro-Brazilian drumming and teaches Cuban and Brazilian music and culture at San Diego State. He's traveled to Brazil and studied with master drummers there. And since 1989 he’s been director of a samba school, Sol e Mar, that plays the popular music of Bahia, a strongly African region of Brazil. The group’s done Street Scene, a parade, festivals, and worked with capoeiristas, the martial arts dancers of Brazil.
“We’ve mixed in bata with the samba instruments, and that’s been wonderful. They sound great together. We’ve done four-hour events with just drumming, which to me is amazing. People don’t get tired of it. They’ll dance for an hour straight to drums.”
But for drumming, there is nowhere like Cuba. And going there is like a spiritual retreat.
“Cuba is so extraordinary because it’s the only place to have an uninterrupted tradition of batd drumming. Bata is by far the granddaddy of African music brought to this hemisphere. There are hundreds of rhythms and thousands of songs, and the drummers have to be responsible for bringing the drums in correctly in each one. The repertoire here is much smaller because the congregations don’t know how to respond to all this. In Cuba the repertoire is huge. People know all the songs. The sound of the bata drums are the voice of the orishas. If an orisha is the ocean, the rhythm is a sonic representation of that universe. This is the first music. It’s like the Big Bang.”
"I am a drum priest. My whole life revolves around drums. I And it’s been hard. I have rough times. The life of a musician I is always hard,” Omar Moore tells me.
We’re sitting in his living room on South 33rd Street in a neighborhood overrun with gangs. There’s a steel gate on the front door of the house, and his orange van sits outside with a huge dent on one side.
“Some gang kids did that. They must’ve thought it was red,” Moore says.
On the phone, I figured Moore was from somewhere in West Africa, because of his ornate accent. But he actually grew up in the South and has never been to Africa. He has close-cropped, receding hair, even teeth, and a professorial air about him. He’s given to ringing oratory and short statements that sound like proclamations. Distant at first, he warms up when his wife Charlotte walks in to ask him a question. This morning Moore is wearing black jeans and a green T-shirt that says “African Recruitment Day” on the front.
He grew up in Lawrenceville, Georgia, a little town on the route that Sherman took on his campaign to take Atlanta, and sang in the children’s choir of the local Baptist church. But his first musical epiphany came even earlier. As a toddler he helped his father on the farm, working with chickens, pigs, and horses, learning how to plow with a mule. And it was there that he first heard the drum.
“I knew the rhythm was in me really early. Anyone who lives in rural America can observe the pace of things going on around them. And all of it plays a rhythm. But you have to open up and tune into it. My dad had a tractor, combiners, and hay balers, and all of these things made sounds. There was the engine on the tractor and the engine on the hay baler. And the sound of the wheels churning and churning as they pulled the hay off the ground and brought the hay through, clipping it and pounding it and then baling it out.
“Well, these movements were happening with the roar of the tractor. I wasn’t even in school then; I must’ve been three or four. And I would run around and around the tractors as my father was in the fields, dancing to the rhythms. I found out later on that the rhythms that I heard were African rhythms.
“We were Southern Baptists, and that’s the root of African-American culture. The people where I grew up spoke and sang in a dialect. People would shout and cry — the spirit would make them shout. When you go to church here, everyone appears to be almost like zombies. But back where we lived, the congregation was involved with what the preacher said, and the services were filled with much, much hope. The psalms that they would sing would stay with you for the rest of your life. Church for us began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m. That was worship, every Sunday.”
Like all kids, Moore listened to R&B and rock, from Sam Cooke to Elvis Presley. But as far as drumming goes, he clearly remembers picking out the rhythm to “Wipe Out.” The Surfaris’ song?
“This had the first bongo line that was accentuated that I heard on radio. School kids noted that, and so did I. So I played around with it on bongos. But it hurt my hands. I chose to play cornet and piano and, later, guitar. And when I found out that guitar hurt just as much as bongos, I went back. I knew these drum rhythms came from ancient sources. But it didn’t apply at that time. Nobody wanted to hear the word ‘ancient.’ Everyone wanted to be progressive and new. But I heard these rhythms in Tarzan movies and in the music of Ray Charles."
He spent more than a decade as a road musician, playing in duos and bands from Los Angeles to Canada. In the ’70s, he lived all over the West — in Portland, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Santa Cruz.
In Santa Cruz he worked with a group called Dark Star that made and sold candles.
“I was in a band there, too, called the Seventh Avenue Street Band. That’s where I got my first conga, but no one knew how to play it. I was hanging out with the old beatniks, and they were tutoring me in the other aspects of science and philosophy. I benefited greatly from that.”
In 1973, when he was living in Canada, Moore fell in love with Charlotte, a white woman from Germany. He followed her back home, living there for three years, traveling and teaching English at the Berlitz School of Language. He worked in a number of jazz and dance bands there. A Puerto Rican fiutist/drummer named Anthony Roche showed him how to play mambo, bossa nova, rumba, and samba on the conga.
“I was getting an education in pieces. I’d already decided to be a drummer. Germany was my proving ground. If I could withstand Germany, I could withstand the world. Because that was the harshest place I’ve ever been.”
In 1978 Moore was back in the U.S., in San Diego, where he met a master drummer from the Wolof nation named Ibrahima Camara, who founded the Kuompo Senegalese West African Dance Company. Camara had just finished a three-month contract at the Wild Animal Park. For African drumming in San Diego, this was ground zero.
“I’m pretty sure this was the first time that the djun djun, the bass drum of the djembe family, ever touched Deep South,” Moore said, referring to San Diego, not Georgia. “Ibrahima introduced me to the djembe and was my first African teacher. He taught me the rhythms and the culture, and I became his personal secretary. Now I was finally back to the beginning, hearing those rhythms I heard with my father when I was a child.”
Nowadays, African drumming draws large crowds. But back then the sight of a black man playing a djembe was more than a little bit menacing to most San Diegans, especially white cops.
“It was the Stone Age here. There was disco; people were interested in the machines. The interest in African drumming was null and void. It was unheard of,” Moore told me in a voice that was still bitter. “I went to all of the parks and played my drum, and I would get run out by police. I was trying to recruit musicians. But black or white, the musicians didn’t accept us. They’d see our show and say it was good. But we got no gigs.”
Moore had another important teacher, also Senegalese, Diamno Coura, who performed with another West African dance company that taught in San Diego for a time.
“From Ibrahima and Diamno I learned the way African people respect the drum and how highly regarded it is in their every way of life. I learned how important rhythm is, because rhythm is balance. They taught me their virtues from a tribal point of view and a religious point of view. They blended them. I developed a style of how to play for dancers, which is what my teachers specialized in. And 2!! of thcrp weire my teachers — the dancers too.”
I ask Moore to play some of the rhythms his Senegalese teachers taught him, and he goes into a back room and pulls out a small djembe, which he tunes like a tabla, by tapping wooden wedges that bear down on ropes, pulling the skin tighter and tighter. He plays mandjani, a Guinea rhythm in four, performed during circumcisions.
Slapping the head of the djembe with both hands, mixing open and closed tones with a deep bass tone from the drum’s center, obtained by hitting the head with the palm of the hand, Moore starts the rhythm slowly. Gradually, the tempo speeds up, as with all African drumming. Soon his hands are dying faster, rising high off the drum and crashing down on the djembe's rim with his fingers and the meat of his palm. I close my eyes and imagine the pain of a young male initiate — Africans don’t perform circumcision right after birth — ritually losing his foreskin.
“The root of djembe playing goes back to the Mali empire, to the Eighth Century,” says Moore, “to the ancient dynasty of the Sunhai, which ruled almost all of West Africa. You never hear about this, but this is where you get the Moorish people from Mauritania.” Moore plays another rhythm, lamban, also from Guinea, that is slower than mandjani, that’s played during spirit-possession ceremonies. But for the third rhythm, ekonkon, from the Djola people, Moore picks up a cylindrical wooden drum with spikes coming out of the head in all directions: a quitiro. I watch his right hand play the bass part with a stick and his left hand play the drum head. The rhythm starts slow and then builds until it’s very fast. “This is a competition dance for young boys and girls,” says Moore.
I ask Moore if, with all he knows, he would ever consider playing bata. His eyes blacken and he shakes his head, as if warding off the worst possible evil.
“Originally the bata were kept in a holy shrine by the Yoruban people. And they weren’t given out. Because not all people are supposed to have this information — look at what they did with the atom bomb. The Africans who came to Cuba were cut off from their tongue. And when you lose your language, you lose your culture. The slavers took the speech from the Africans. What remained were rhythmic patterns and ancient stories but not the language. Some remember it. But you never see them up here passing it off. They keep it in Cuba.
“The people here buy [their way into] the [Santeria] religion. They have hit men and all kinds of corruption. That’s what my Nigerian teachers told me—the Orobo. They’re cousins of the Yoruba. They know the rules and maintain them. There are sacred drums, but only chosen people are to play those drums. So I don’t own them. I don’t have them in my house. If one of the Yoruban masters let me study with him and said I should have some, then I could carve some or buy some.”
We hear a car pull up and then a knock. Moore looks through the window and down the street before opening the door for Bernard Thomas and a friend, another drummer, down from LA. A few days earlier I’d talked by phone to Thomas. But from the skeptical tone in his voice, I could tell he didn’t trust me. Now we face each other down warily.
Thomas is about six foot two and slightly stoop shouldered, his skin shiny and black — the color of French-roast coffee beans. He’s wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt, baggy black-and-white pants, and a gold earring in his left ear. His hair is a jet-black high fade, his goatee is coarse and scrubby. As we shake hands, his gaze bears down on me. His eyes grant me no trust when I ask him why he’s devoted his life to African drumming.
“Why do I drum?” Thomas says. “Aside from drumming being in my blood and my soul, I drum as a vehicle to take me to higher consciousness — my own self-realization and the consciousness of my people. You talk about exploitation? I speak a slave language, I am steeped in Western values. I was stripped of my African identity, which I was told was worthless. Well, drums are the medium that brings me to terms with that process of being made to feel inferior. Drums are what put me back in touch with my Africanness, after the miseducation and oppression. The drums put me back in touch with my African manhood. Before we were running up and down football fields showing our virility, we were drumming and dancing.
"The Europeans discovered when they were kidnapping Africans that they had a very utilitarian piece in the drums. The drums have language; they have phonics. They could relay messages much farther and faster than telegraph, the highest technology of the day. The drums had all these things that were very useful in terms of warfare. So you could not let the African man have a drum; the slaves would talk from plantation to plantation. They’d talk about liberation.
“You could lose a foot or a hand if you were caught with a drum. So we came up with many ways to disguise our drumming — with whiskey barrels, with holes in the ground. The drum is a symbol of my people’s struggle. And my approach to drumming is a little different than some people who have a reckless approach. What angers me is the reckless approach. You have to understand African folklore. If something is sacred — if something involves ritual and you just happen to come upon this treasure — how do you deal with it? Who do you portray it for? Do you play it for a bunch of drunken men at some convention just because they’re paying you $600? Or do you keep it in its context? For a lot of us, it’s artistic portrayal. But I still feel obligated to keep the drum in context.
“There’s a lot of misrepresentation of the drum. You’ve got white people, bless their hearts, who appreciate this music. But they feel they have to express it. So they’ll have djembe or bata — all these powerful drums. Well, how can a white person represent African culture? How can I dress up in a kilt and represent Scottish people? How can I do that? I can respect it and pay tribute to it. But I can’t represent it.”
But what if you take the time to learn the language and the culture? What if, like Mark Lamson has done, you are initiated? What if you can play the music correctly — would that be acceptable? Bernard looks at me patiently, then shakes his head.
“Mark Lamson? He’s culturally incorrect. You see, you can argue we all go back to one race. But somewhere down the line there developed racial separation. Right now when I look at what Mark is doing and his racial mixture, it does not match up. Racially he's something else. His religion is something else. His music is something else. It makes it harder to tie it all together. He’s a good drummer. He’s an excellent drummer. But in San Diego, when it’s time to step forward as a culture, as a race, who are we going to have step forward for Africans? Who’s going to step forward for us? Mark Lamson? Paulo Mattioli? I don’t think so.”
“Are the white people willing to stand up and die for this?”
Moore, who’s sat quietly for the last ten minutes, says in a voice that sounds like thunder. His eyes are fierce — the eyes of a warrior stating his grievance. “We lost our hands for drumming. Last time I looked there were still laws on the books in Georgia that prohibited the playing of the drum — laws that said that any black man caught playing the drum would have his right hand cut off. Now all these European-American kids with drums, guess what the first thing they’re going to say if it comes down to it? ‘It’s not my drum.’ Cut the dreadlocks and it’s gone.”
“They’re standing on the shoulders of our ancestors,” Thomas says. “Probably not for another 500 or 1000 years will Africans know their original glory. Now when I say this is a vehicle for higher consciousness, we’re talking about spiritual first aid. Who needs this first aid more than us? Look at what’s happening to our children. Do my children need it more than their children right now? Our symbols were taken. If you understand what symbolism is about, you find it’s a mass statement condensed into one icon or theme. You get rid of that symbol and you have wiped out a myriad of ideas. You have wiped out a major portion of philosophy. You’re attacking spirit when you delete symbols.
“The drum is a connector — it’s that cultural first aid. I consider it a state of emergency with our children. If you have two children who are both suffering, but the black child is near death, you’ve got to help him first. That’s what I need the white people to understand. Your forefathers did a good job of laying the foundations for you. You’re a privileged individual in this society, but I’m not. My children are not. I’ve got to lay the way for them. I have to help them come to terms with their Africanness. And if I can use the drum to do that, I will. Right now the restorative power of this drum is being recognized by everyone. In Japan there are djembe ensembles that smoke.”
“Two of them,” says Moore.
“But in San Diego? In Southern California? Knowing the condition of my people," says Thomas, “I can’t be out there with my time and money in areas with privileged individuals when we got kids killing each other left and right because they don’t feel good about themselves. I can’t teach the white kids. And I say this at the risk of being labeled a reverse racist. You’re going to find that in the parts of the world where Africans received the harshest treatment, forgiveness is slow and resentment is long. We’re in the process of recapturing and reclaiming. The drum is an integral part of that process. All of our musical forms have been exploited. White artists stole and took from us. But is anything sacred? Is anything left? If you go back as far as you can go, what’s left? This drum," Thomas says, tapping the djun djun. “The oldest drum on the planet. You think you’ve found something. But when you look around, they got that too.”
“But at the same time, they’re claiming, on an unspoken level, that the drum ain’t worth nothing,” Moore adds, shaking his head.
“Lamson has got to realize he’s an impediment in the process,” says Bernard. “I don’t care how much he knows. In the restoration process, he belongs to a racial group of people who are involved in the exploitation. How do you turn that around?”
“And he can change robes at any moment,” says Moore. “Mark Lamson is the progeny of people who have been exploited but who, in this country, have been involved in our exploitation to the hilt. I’m not gonna take that out on him directly. But he’s got to be aware of that. He cannot be naive to that. He has to know that this is a family matter for Africans to settle without any outside obstruction. He’s holding one of our symbols. I’m not saying give it back. If you can take this and make your people more compassionate, more sensitive of our struggle, that’s what you better be about. Otherwise, history tells me to be suspicious.”
Of course there’s more at stake than just symbols. There’s lots of money being made mining the art and music of the Third World. Who controls the grants and the flow of knowledge has power. And the competition for master drummers and dancers can get fierce.
“When we get a continental African over to teach, the white drummers usually shroud that individual,” says Thomas. “And I’m talking about entire organizations. There are people so hungry for the power of the drum that when they get a master here, the Omars and the Bernards don’t get contacted.”
“There are people here who have received grants to go into public places and teach people — huge sums of money,” says Moore. “Here at San Diego State University they can’t even keep an ethnic program that deals with people of color.”
“Africa’s so poor,” Bernard says. “The culture is for sale. We’re suffering from slavery; they’re suffering from colonization. Whereas we’re trying to get back, they’re trying to get out. Not only are we trying to restore our Africanness here, but we’re trying to get in touch with our brothers and hope they can understand us. All I’m saying is, ‘European brother, your time is coming.’ I can share with you comfortably only if I know that my house is in order.”
Thomas’s full-time gig is as an electrician for the city, but he accompanies an African dance class each Friday at Southcrest Hark and Recreation Center. And much of his time is tied up with his company, Teye Sa Thiosanne, which stages some two dozen performances a year, mostly in San Diego.
“The name comes from the African Wolof language. The concept is culture, heritage, ancestry. Teye Sa Thiosanne means ‘Know your heritage.’ And we’re mainly involved in that part of our heritage that deals with expression — drumming, dancing, ritual. We’re a performance company, and I’m the director.”
Thomas gives private lessons, too, for a coming-of-age program for black teens, dedicated to giving young boys and girls a positive self-image. As we talk, his attitude gives way to friendliness.
“I give this drum to them and this symbol to them. I’m involved in the initiation process. It’s called Passage Foundation for Children. They learn to drum and dance; they have their own brotherhood of dancers and drummers. The organization started in 1988, and I worked with them in ’89.”
Thomas grew up in Dallas, the son of a poor black family, whose mother was a civil rights activist.
“I came through the whole segregation thing. I didn’t know I was poor. My mother was an integrationist down in Dallas. She marched against the school district and got fired from her job as a cafeteria worker. It was separate school systems, one white, the other black. Still, I found Dallas a lot easier to deal with in terms of racism. I knew who my enemies were. We’d have rock fights across the ditch. I could see them clearly. And then we’d end up playing together.
“I moved here in 1963, like a lot of blacks did in the ’40s and ’50s. The blacks ran from the South to the North, and the North to the West, and everywhere we ran we chased white people off. Out here is the El Dorado syndrome. Blacks thought it was the promised land, citrus trees lining the sidewalks, streets paved with gold. But they found a harsher, different brand of racism. Racism in San Diego rears its ugly head ever so suddenly. And it catches people off guard. They don’t know how to deal with it.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear that some whites exploited African drumming and disrespected the drum. Or that San Diego, like the rest of the state, had its bigots. But if Omar and Bernard were right, then skin color determined what you could and couldn’t do in this world. It was deplorable that a white drumming ensemble should be fobbed off as representing Africa. But music wasn’t something any one race could own. Every culture had drumming, and rhythms mixed and fused in a global gumbo. I could hear African rhythms in the Celtic music, and Celtic and European rhythms in Madagascar’s music. Jazz itself, the greatest musical art form of the century, came from the cross-fertilization of European brass band marching music and African rhythm, tonality, and call and response.
If I were to apply Bernard’s “cultural correctness” rationale elsewhere, the results would be disturbing. The Jews, for instance, wrote the Old Testament. Yet hundreds of millions of every color, nationality, and religion have been stirred by its teachings. Some have distorted the scripture and used it for demagoguery. But should Jews have the right to control the rest of the world’s interpretation of a sacred book?
“It’s ironic that the prejudice against whites playing sacred drum music from Cuba, Brazil, or Africa comes from African-Americans in this country,” Mark Lamson said. “Because their culture — their music — was completely stripped from them, due to the difference in the way the English Protestant culture dealt with the Africans as compared to the Spanish and Portuguese, the Africans in America are angry. But black Cubans are more than willing to teach someone who has the skill to play the drum and learn the music — no matter what color his skin is. They’re thrilled and complimented by the interest shown by white Americans. It’s the American blacks in this country who have such a problem with it. But it’s not their place to judge an Afro-Cuban musician and what he does with his music.
“Also, Omar and Bernard are really misinformed about the bata. There’s a sacred version of the bata set and a non-sacred version. If they see a bata drum in public, they immediately think it’s the sacred version and freak out. But there are the consecrated drums of Ana, which can only be used in sacred rituals for initiates, and there are aberrikula, which can be used in public.”
I asked Lamson if he thought white drummers in San Diego were regularly exploiting blacks.
“It goes on. I don’t take those gigs. I turn them over to an African group I know. I know groups that take those gigs and are more than willing to put all white students in there. But I think it’s the fault of the black drummers in town for not taking advantage of opportunities. Too often that kind of attitude is a result of their lack of resourcefulness.”
“When I first started drumming in San Diego, there was no real drumming community,” said Paulo Mattioli, an Italian-American djembe builder, teacher, performer, and one of the “culturally incorrect” drummers on Bernard’s and Omar’s list.
“So I went to some classes with Bernard and Omar. Anyone white who came to the class was vibed out. They told me I wasn’t qualified to drum. That’s why I started my classes in San Diego four years ago. There was no place for people to come together and drum in a nonintimidating atmosphere. The master drummers from Africa are excited about teaching anyone, regardless of color, about their music and culture. The drum knows no color, and no one can claim to represent African culture and at the same time exclude people by race.”
There was a time when women drummed. The goddess cults that flourished in places like the Neolithic city of Catal Huyuk, located in southern Turkey, revolved around sacred drumming and dancing. Painted on the walls of the temples are pictures of primordial percussion instruments: concussion sticks, clappers and bullroarers, and stone cylinders that were probably drums.
It’s not unreasonable to think there were great female drummers in those ancient days. But then came a 5000-year reign of male icons, from which we’re still reeling. Drums were used as accessories to war and for initiations. And in many cultures, including Africa, women weren’t allowed to play many drums.
All of this makes me glad to meet Monette Marino. I first saw her at the opening of Baraka, the drum and dance center she founded. She was playing djembe in an otherwise all-male ensemble for an African dance class. Amid the many cross-rhythms, her lightning-quick solos and flams jumped out like thunderclaps. After the class we went to a nearby donut shop and talked about drumming.
A third-generation San Diegan, Marino has long dark hair. In high school, I’d heard, she was a fashion plate, appearing in beauty contests. But the musician’s life had radically changed her. Today she’s wearing a loose blouse and a long dress that doesn’t begin to cover her legs, which are very hairy. Everything about her says “child of the ’60s.” And when she talks, in quick gushes, the words fly out like rim shots.
“I started drumming when I was nine years old. My dad was a professional set drummer who played around San Diego, so he taught all us kids how to drum. ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was the first song I learned. I played drums in the garage, banging away to Led Zeppelin and the Stones, you know, until I was 15. Then I found this set of congas in the garage.”
Marino pauses and gives me a sunny smile.
“I’d never seen these before. So I asked my dad, 'What are those drums?’ And he said congas. And I said, 'How do you play them?’ Well, he wasn’t a conga player, but he showed me some patterns he knew, including the mambo. And it was awesome. This was way better than playing a trap set. Touching the skin with your hands was so much more immediate. I was able to express the rhythmic language in my head more fluently.”
Her drum education came in fragments. A local drummer taught her guaguanco, a Cuban rumba, and some samba. “But he didn’t explain how the parts fit together. So I was learning them as complete rhythms.”
At UCLA, in 1988, she took a West African drumming class with Leon Mobley that was pivotal. “Leon was really impressed with me. He’d invite me to gigs he played, and he was really supportive of me. Leon was the first male drummer who respected me as a drummer. Everyone else had an attitude. They would just show me some rhythms — no need to explain anything to her, such as clave, because she’s never going to do anything with it, right?”
By the time she returned to San Diego in 1989, Marino knew she wanted to be a drummer. For a while she played congas in a local band called Sonic BBQ. She took some djembe classes from Mattioli, who was teaching African percussion in Encinitas. Then in 1990, Marino moved to Florence, Italy, and brought her congas with her. There, in the mythic heart of the European renaissance, it turned out African drumming was flourishing.
“There were a lot of Senegalese musicians living in Florence. Plus a lot of Brazilians and some great Brazilian percussionists. I knew some Brazilian rhythms. And the reaction was, 'Holy cow! She knows how to play our music!’ So every week I’d sit in at these clubs, like Cafe Voltaire, and play samba. I did this for free, while I was doing art and working in a market selling leather purses and stationery. It got to be so that when I walked in a club and some Brazilians were playing, they would bring me up onstage.”
In Florence, Marino heard of a Senegalese master drummer named Mory Thioune. He lived, taught, and performed in Rome, a few hours away. Marino decided to go see him.
“I met him at an anti-racism concert in Florence. They were playing their last song, and I noticed an extra djembe onstage. So I just got up and played it, and he started to watch me. He asked for my address and invited me to play. I went to Rome a couple of times and learned a lot from him."
In 1992, when the expatriate life lost its luster, Marino came back to the U.S. determined to make drumming the focus of her life. She went to Tijuana for two weeks to study with Julio Guerra and Angel Bolahos, two of Cuba’s greatest percussionists.
“That’s where I learned the right way to play the three styles of rumba on congas. I heard the bata live for the first time. It was amazing. I got to see the dances that went with the drumming, which made sense. Finally, all the concepts of drumming came together for me.”
One other drummer has had a major influence on her — Yaya Diallo, the great Mali drummer and member of the Minianka tribe, who’s taught a number of workshops over the last year and wrote the book The Healing Drum.
“Yaya taught me the subtleties of communicating with the dancers through the drums. He taught me how to maximize my sound without hurting my hands.”
Though Marino works for a litigation attorney to keep the wolf from the door, Baraka and drumming gobble up lots of time. She plays percussion with a band called Semisi and Fula Bula and teaches a class of women’s drumming Saturday afternoons.
“Women have traditionally been barred from drumming. They’re scared and intimidated by the men. It goes along with women’s oppression. But there are lots of talented women drummers out there. Someday soon I’d like to start a women’s percussion ensemble.”
From the time she thought about opening Baraka until this April, when classes started at a local Hillcrest dance studio, a year passed. Marino sank some $3000 of her own money into the center. A recent fundraiser netted $2000 for Baraka. But she’s still deep in the hole. And in mid-November, Marino got word that Baraka would have to move because of complaints about noise problems.
“Now we’re forced to relocate and start from scratch again. We’re trying to get grants so that we can pay people money to do the things that need to get done. We want to have performances later — by students and teachers. We want to be able to get the best drummers. And we want to have after-school programs for children.” Marino smiles.
“I just wished Baraka was around when I was learning to drum. Then I wouldn’t have had to learn it all in bits and pieces.”
Gene Perry has a roundish face, mischievous, big brown eyes, mocha-colored skin, and a lilting Caribbean accent that puts you in mind of sugar cane and tropical breezes. When he plays congas, he gets a buttery sound that’s all sweet and melodic. And he smiles when he sings, his head tilted back, his grainy voice floating heavenward. Perry can play anything from Matanzas-style rumbas to Cuban songo and jazz. But his favorite rhythms are the bomba and the plena, which he heard as a youth growing up in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
“There was a park across the way where a lot of congueros would jam, and I would listen to the music and watch them play,” Perry told me one Sunday afternoon when I came over to his apartment, which had African statues, Ghanaian masks and, on one wall, a print of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. “I was 14 or 15 when I started to check out the drums seriously. I heard a lot of bomba. Rafael Cortijo was around, and he was one of the pioneers of bomba. He played congas, and I heard him in San Juan with the singer Ismael Rivera. Those two guys were the great players of bomba and plena.
“I went to a junior high school in Santurce, and that’s when I got involved heavily with the drums. There were a lot of jam sessions. My dad was a pianist. He played Latin jazz and sort.”
After his parents separated. Perry split his time between his mother in Puerto Rico and his father, who migrated to New York, Philadelphia, and, eventually, San Diego.
“We got here in 1968, and that’s when my dad brought me a conga. I was self-taught mostly. I listened a lot, and I had the rhythms in my head. But in San Diego I started playing with the records. I listened to ‘Afro Blue’ by Mongo Santamaria. And I heard Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba, and Francisco Aguabella. I would buy a lot of records and just listen to what they were putting down. And I would go to shows in Los Angeles and check out the drummers. Because there were lots of shows in the ’70s and ’80s. There was music all the time.”
It was in L.A. in 1969, when Mongo Santamaria was playing at one of the big hotels, that Perry introduced himself to the fabled drummer.
“I asked him what the chant in ‘Afro Blue’ meant. And Mongo said it was a chant to Shango — a blessing giving thanks to the god of the drums.” Santamaria had no time to give Perry lessons. But one of the band’s other great drummers, Steve Berrios, did.
On one of his trips back to Puerto Rico a few years ago, Perry studied with Angel Cachete Moldinado, an all-around master drummer and pioneer of bomba and plena. It had a strong effect on his musical direction.
“I went to his school. I told him I would play a few things and for him to check me out. He helped me with rumba and songo, but we concentrated hard on bomba and plena. And I asked him to show me some bomba and plena rhythms. Some of the licks were hard. But that’s what inspired me to put on a show every year with bomba and plena.
“I begin the shows with traditional dances and rhythms from Puerto Rico. We do bomba, plena, and rumba, usually in January or March. The first one I did was in 1990, and it went great. It’s been done at different places. It was at the [Centro Cultural de la Raza] at Balboa Park for the first two years. First we do the show part, with dancers. After that I come in with the band and we play.”
I ask Perry to show me some bomba and plena rhythms, and he goes into his bedroom and comes back with some drums and a big smile on his face. The first rhythm he shows me is yubd, a pure African bomba rhythm. The pattern is deceptively tricky, with a slap and three open tones. Singing over it, as Perry does, makes it harder yet. “Yubd yubd yubd la maline,” he sings, African words that he doesn’t know the meaning of.
Next Perry plays sici, a better-known bomba rhythm, that sounds like this: PA-Ta-ka-TUN-Cu-Tun. It’s less complex and less African-sounding to me. I pick it up quickly.
“All these rhythms are played on barrel-shaped drums,” says Perry. “They’re short and sit low. They’re called buliadores. And you have someone else playing the sticks doing a cua pattern on the side of a drum.”
Perry disappears for a minute and comes back with three plenaras — Puerto Rican frame drums — and shows me the sound of each. The basic plena rhythm is played on the lowest-pitched drum and goesTun-PA-Tun-PA. The second rhythm goesTun-Tun-PA. The lead drum, the requinto, plays the solos. I play the basic rhythm and Perry solos over it. What emerges is funky but less skanking and more European-sounding than the bomba.
Both the bomba and the plena come from Africa, though the former is more strongly African. Bomba evolved in the coastal towns where the sugar cane mills were situated and takes its name from the barrel-shaped drums. Some historians and ethnomusicologists think that the arrival in Puerto Rico of African Haitians around 1800 was crucial in the bomba's development. But its origins are somewhat mysterious. As recently as the 1950s, bomba fell into obscurity. And outside the island’s black and mulatto districts, it never attained widespread popularity.
By contrast, the plena achieved great popularity among all Puerto Ricans. Like bomba, it developed among poor blacks and mulattos during the last century. But it didn’t become popular until the 1920s and ’30s, when its lyrics, reflecting local events or politics, and an accompanying dance, was the rage. Plena can be played on a variety of percussion instruments but usually has one European melodic instrument, like a guitar.
“In Puerto Rico plena is called the newspaper of the town,” Perry says. “Say a woman got cut with a knife — in Puerto Rico that’s a song. And they’ll sing it on the streets. ‘Cortaran a Elena,' " Perry sings, and I see visions of sugar cane fields. “Or they’ll make a song about the hurricane, ‘Temporal, temporal,’ ” Perry sings, slapping a bomba rhythm on the conga, conjuring the storm’s power.
For someone who’s been a fixture on the local percussion scene for two decades. Perry is humble and open to learning from drummers who've played a fraction of the time he has. That’s crucial in a city like San Diego, which is isolated from the major drumming cultures.
Perry went to Clairemont High School and spent a couple of years at Mesa College but didn’t study music. He found work at a hospital as a porter, took some other jobs, and then became a groundsworker at San Diego State University.
“That’s my number-one job — I’ve been there 15 years. But music’s my number-one love. My job is perfect. It’s from 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., so when I get off I have time to practice.” He smiles. “It’s too hard to make a living here as a musician.”
One overcast Sunday in late October, I met Mark Lamson at a house in East L.A., less than 15 minutes from where I live. It sat inconspicuously above a mint-green garage in a sprawling hillside neighborhood jammed with immigrants. Somewhere nearby I heard the cooing of doves and the clucking of chickens. There would be a toque here, a party to celebrate the anniversary of someone’s initiation into the Santeria religion. I would now get to see how the bata functioned in a spiritual setting.
“This is a babalao’s house,” says Mark, who’s driven from San Diego with two bata students, Ken Bordwell and Robert Vacca, and Gary Greenberg, a batalero who will play the itotele. “We’re just waiting for the singer and the*third drummer.”
Toques are a regular feature of life in the Santeria religion. Some are initiations, some mark the anniversaries of an initiation, and some are held after a divination has determined it is time to have one. In Cuba they happen all the time. But in the U.S. they mostly happen on weekends.
We wait around for 15 minutes as the last guests, all of them Latino, trickle in. Then the missing drummer, a tall, muscular Cuban named Virgilio, arrives along with the evening’s singer, a Cuban-born santero named Pedro, who has a gold chain around his neck bearing the name. Pedro has skin the color of coffee with one drop of milk in it.
Before the congregation can participate, the three drummers enter a room off the kitchen that’s been transformed into an altar to Oshun, the ruling orisha of the woman being honored. The floor is covered with hundreds of pieces of fruit and endless bouquets of flowers, including yellow roses. Yellow and gold — the favorite colors of Oshun — are everywhere, among the bananas and pears and in the hanging lace. For the next half hour or so, only the drummers, who will play the basic salutes to 26 main orishas, and the santeros, can sit in this altar room.
As the iya, okonkolo, and itotele lock into the various rhythms, I hear snippets of conversation behind me and sniff an odor that’s a mixture of black beans, tamales, cigarettes, and flan. This could be any party; people laugh and chatter in the back rooms and out on the balcony. But there are numerous santeros here, as well as two babalaos, and a cage full of doves and roosters that squawk every now and then. I close my eyes and listen to the bata and start to feel lighter.
When the salutes are finished, the drummers go onto the balcony and set up for what will be three hours of almost continual music and dance. It’s strange to see white bata players at a ceremony celebrating an African religion whose devotees are mostly Spanish-speaking. An African religion demonized by most Americans, no less, because it involves animal sacrifices. I notice people checking out Mark and Gary, perhaps vaguely wondering what convoluted paths led them here. I stand off to one side and watch Pedro pick up a wooden maraca, light up a cigarette, and pop open a beer. He casually jabbers to Virgilio and one or another of the santeros at the party. Occasionally, he breaks into hysterical laughter and slaps his knee.
A few minutes later, at a signal, Pedro starts singing in a gravely voice, marking the clave with his maraca as Mark comes in with the iyd, and Gary answers with the itdtele. Soon the drumming and the singing are the focus of the party, and the slight unease I felt earlier dissipates. A smiling, middle-aged santero makes a motion with his eyes, and a heavyset woman dressed in a yellow tunic with ancient Egyptian faces on it steps out in front of the drummers and dances to the music. In tribute to Oshun, who represents love, fresh waters, and abundance, the woman imitates the orisha s mythological behavior, one hand holding an imaginary mirror so as to laugh and admire her legendary beauty. Midway through the song, the woman’s movements become fluid and graceful; she seems years younger, lit with an inner beauty that doesn’t know age. After she’s danced for nearly an hour, as the drumming builds, her eyes become heavy-lidded and glassy. She shudders. Like a boxer who’s been stunned by a quick blow, her feet go wobbly. The santero and a friend help her to a seat.
Three other initiates come onto the improvised dance floor, and they, too, are jolted by the approaching presence of their orishas, in this case Shango, Yemayi, and Agayu. The drumming makes me feel centered.
At about 7:00 p.m., three hours into the ceremony, Pedro and the drummers do several pieces for Egun — the ancestor spirits — and the orishas that relate to death. Now the drumming gets faster, more intense. A bucket of water is placed in front of the bataleros, the water intended to carry away negative spiritual energy. A short while later, a woman carries the bucket out to the street, dumps the water, and comes back dancing. On the last song I hear the squawking of chickens and roosters and wonder if a sacrifice is being made. Then the drumming and singing end, and everyone lines up for a buffet dinner of black beans and rice, tamales, beef stew, and flan. I find Lamson at a table. Was anyone mounted by an orisha? I ask.
“No, you’d know if she was mounted by her orisha. She just felt Oshun’s energy. When you’re possessed, the orisha is pushing your spirit out of your body. You’re being overtaken by another spirit. It’s said to be painful. People fight it and try to leave the room. You would’ve known if someone was possessed,” Lamson says. “Everything would change.”